Another Word on Job-Market Etiquette

Dana Polanichka, December 2011

I started preparing for the history job market even before I began graduate school. Between seeking out all available information about academic job searches, applying for positions, and working one-on-one with applicants, I have spent the better part of a decade thinking about the many challenges involved in securing a faculty position and distilled many of my experiences and ideas into an AHA pamphlet on the subject. What I perhaps thought and talked about most was job-market etiquette. My refrain has been that most job applicants are brilliant, do interesting work, and possess impressive c.v.'s; these are not always what sets applicants apart from the crowd, since well-qualified applicants are plentiful. No, it is not one's intelligence or experience that garners the elusive job offer, but knowing what to know, how to behave, what to wear, and what to say. Success lies in how one presents oneself.

But at the most recent American Historical Association Annual Meeting in Boston, I realized that I had missed a tremendously important etiquette-related topic when writing the AHA guide, Getting an Academic Job in History. I had completely omitted discussion of the ways in which we casually converse about the market and individual job searches with our peers, students, and advisees. How unfortunate that I had overlooked this aspect! More attention to how we informally chat about jobs would do much to improve the job search environment at a time when we feel so powerless about changing the market itself.

Nearly all articles and books about the job search remind applicants to be cognizant of their surroundings when attending conferences such as the AHA annual meeting, and to avoid discussing job interviews (particularly one's feelings about interviews, search committees, or schools) in public, lest one, for example, inadvertently disparage a school in front of a search committee member who, up until that point, had considered the applicant favorably. How awful to lose a job over such an easily avoidable mistake!

But should we not use the same caution—and, more importantly, consideration—in voicing our opinions about the job market when discussing it with fellow applicants, colleagues, advisees, and students?1 The following three anecdotes from my personal experience illustrate the necessity of of being circumspect, of following, in fact, the golden rule of interview sites—of not merely being polite but also being considerate and empathetic to other job seekers.

I will never forget my run-in with two colleagues, graduate students specializing in the same small subfield of history and thus applying to the same jobs, at the 2007 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. A few days earlier, "Katherine" had mentioned to me that she had been asked to very few interviews, and when we bumped into one another in the hotel lobby, she confided that was not feeling particularly confident about her performance in her interview with Dream School University.2 Soon we were joined by "Louis," who boasted about his many interviews and particularly about how brilliantly he had performed in his interview with the aforementioned Dream School. A mixture of hurt and shock washed over me. I was certainly thrilled for him, but my heart went out to Katherine, whose face fell with every boastful word out of Louis' mouth. Where was his sense of compassion, not to mention humility? Did he have any sense of how his words might affect our colleague? Not yet on the job market myself, I became even less excited about one day entering the market and enduring such encounters.

At the 2011 annual meeting in Boston, another colleague relayed a story of similar indiscretion. "Charles" had not been invited for a single interview at the meeting, and the rejection weighed on him heavily. "Lucy," a fellow job applicant only barely acquainted with Charles but also in the same field, further exacerbated these feelings by openly disparaging a school with which she had interviewed. Charles, who would have been thrilled by such an interview invitation, was infuriated and hurt by the total disregard that Lucy had for the school and for his feelings. Lucy, in all fairness, did not know that Charles had not been asked to any interviews, but her ignorance did not excuse such behavior. After all, were he not an applicant, Charles could have easily been a former student at this institution. What good, then, could have come from Lucy's negative evaluation of the school?

At a mixer during the same meeting in Boston, I witnessed a third breach of etiquette. I heard two colleagues discussing the schools at which one of them, "Carl" was interviewing (the other, "Agatha," was already in a tenure-track position). These two historians were in vastly different fields and only marginally acquainted with one another. Carl had an interview in a state considered less desirable by Agatha, who remarked that "surely" Carl did not want to end up there. While I am not personally excited about that particular state myself, I quickly stopped the conversation to keep Agatha from putting her foot in her mouth any more than she already had. What if that were the only job offered to Carl? On the one hand, if Carl loved the location, he might be offended by my colleague's comment. On the other hand, if he agreed with Agatha and hated the state, but felt it was his only option, such a comment would only add insult to injury: Carl would forever be reminded that some of his colleagues looked down upon his job, even if only due to its location. There was just no reason to offer such thoughtless comments in a tough job market.

And that's just the point: we all know that the job market is tough. There seem to be ever more doctorates being awarded and increasingly fewer jobs. All finishing graduate students, recent PhDs, VAPs, Adjunct Lecturers, and tenure-track professors looking to switch schools are in the same difficult position. We know this, and yet we (and here I include myself, unfortunately) continue to speak too freely and inconsiderately about the job market. In groups of colleagues and friends, we forget to use the sensitivity filters that we so carefully employ around search committees. It is not always intentional—perhaps it almost never is—and yet it is still damaging to egos that harrowing job searches have already made fragile. Off-handed remarks made by friends and colleagues are often worse than the insidious comments posted on Wiki job-market pages. Anonymous comments are easy to dismiss; the evaluation of colleagues, professors, and advisers whom we esteem are less so.

Thus, if I can offer any additional advice for the upcoming job-market season, it is not about what to say in an interview or which color suit to wear or whether to use first names in a thank-you note (though I am happy to continue answering these important questions). Rather, it is to remember that finding an academic job is a difficult, often-depressing, insecurity-inducing endeavor, and it would do us all well to be careful when discussing the job market.

This is not to say that we should avoid serious conversations about the benefits and pitfalls of various types of positions, schools, and locations. Advisers should continue to discuss their students' options openly and judiciously in order to help them make the right professional and personal choices and avoid making ill-informed decisions. Historians should still apply the same critical analysis that they direct at source-texts to the jobs offered to them just as I imagine they do with all significant decisions in their lives.

But consideration and care must be part of the equation, particularly in our casual conversations with our colleagues. We should not carelessly disparage schools or locations, liberal arts colleges or R1 universities, private or public institutions. We should not boast about our own successes or, even worse, enjoy others' failures. Instead, we ought to support and comfort one another when rejected, and praise one another when interviews, campus visits, or offers are extended.

After all, we should remember that in this economy, a job—any job—is a wonderful thing and one that leaves many rejected and dejected applicants in its wake.

Dana M. Polanichka is an assistant professor at Wheaton College, Norton, Mass. Dana, whose research focuses on Carolingian cultural and social history, is the author of the AHA pamphlet, Getting an Academic Job in History.

Notes

1. Katherine Hijar, in a great article about "Job Market Etiquette," briefly addresses conversations with colleagues on the job market. Perspectives on History 48, no. 9 (December 2010): 28-30.

2. All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.